Recent torrential rain coupled with years of water system issues have resulted in a crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, where the city doesn’t have enough water to fight fires, flush toilets or even hand out to residents in need.
Jackson’s main water treatment facility began failing Monday, according to Gov. Tate Reeves. The National Guard was called up to help distribute bottled water as crews work to get the water treatment plant back online, state officials said.
But the distribution itself proved unsustainable. Residents of all ages were seen waiting in lines more than a mile long at Hawkins Field Airport for at least two hours Tuesday for just one case of bottled water. The event was supposed to span three hours, but barely ran two as people were eventually turned away when the 700 cases of water ran out.
“I keep saying we’re going to be the next Michigan,” said Jeraldine Watts, 86, who was able to get water at a grocery store Monday night. “And it looks like that’s exactly what we’re headed for.”
Watts was referring to the water crisis in the city of Flint, which has battled water issues since a 2014 water crisis in which lead-contaminated water fed to residents’ faucets.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN’s Pamela Brown the city is working on more water distribution events. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will provide nearly 30 water trucks to help supplement the city events, the mayor said.
“I have been assured by MEMA that they will supplement those locations with about 28 tanker trucks distributed at various points across the city,” Lumumba told CNN.
Explanations for Jackson’s failing system are complicated: Damage this summer to pumps at the main water treatment facility made failure increasingly likely as the summer progressed, the governor said; and flooding of the Pearl River after heavy rains last week affected treatment processes and therefore the amount of running water the system can provide, Lumumba said.
This week’s troubles come as the water system has been plagued with problems for years and with the city already under a boil water notice since late July for what the state called a water-quality issue.
The state is “surging our resources to the city’s water treatment facility and beginning emergency maintenance, repairs and improvements,” Gov. Reeves said. “We will do everything in our power to restore water pressure and get water flowing back to the people of Jackson.”
Water for those in the state’s most populous city would have to be provided “for an unknown period of time,” Reeves said.
The water shortage is expected to last “the next couple of days,” according to the mayor’s office.
Lumumba also announced Monday the city’s public works director – a role that oversees the water treatment facilities – has been reassigned. Marlin King will instead serve as deputy director and Jordan Hillman, the city’s planning and development director, will be the interim public works director, according to Melissa Payne, the mayor’s spokesperson.
King did not respond to CNN requests for comment. Payne said King’s reassignment “is part of restructuring” and is not a result of the current water crisis.
Residents say faucet water is discolored
State Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. said he didn’t have running water Monday, but on Tuesday, discolored water came out of his faucet that he used to flush the toilet. He and his family used bottled water Tuesday morning to brush their teeth, Crudup told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.
Crudup said that although the city has experienced water issues in the past, rain played a part in the current water emergency.
“It’s been building up for years, but we have had an unprecedented amount of rain in the last two to three weeks, and it just kind of created this havoc, what we are dealing with right now,” he said.
Jackson resident Daryl Page told CNN he’s been searching for clean, bottled water since the city’s been under a boil water notice “for a whole month.” He was driving to a distribution site, but as he arrived, he noticed there was nothing there.
“Everyone is turning around because there is nothing here,” Page said, adding that his next plan of action was to drive to another site in hopes that he could find cases of water there.
Because of Monday’s failure, officials announced all Jackson public schools will shift to virtual learning Tuesday.
Hospitals are also feeling the strain. Jackson’s University of Mississippi Medical Center released a statement Tuesday saying the Jackson Medical Mall air conditioning is not functioning properly “because the water pressure feeding its chillers is too low.” Portable restrooms are being used in locations experiencing low water pressure, the statement said.
The university medical center statement also said a fire watch was declared for its Jackson-based facilities, “because fire suppression systems are fed by the city water system. Low pressure in the systems may cause them to be less effective.”
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the water crisis in Jackson and the White House has been “in regular contact with state and local officials, including Mayor Lumumba, and made clear that the Federal Government stands ready to offer assistance,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday afternoon.
“(The Federal Emergency Management Agency) is working closely with the state officials to identify needs, and the EPA is coordinating with industry partners to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment for emergency repairs at the City of Jackson water treatment facilities,” she said.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency said “ensuring all people have access to healthy and safe water is a top priority.”
“We are in communication with officials in Mississippi and stand ready to provide support should the State request federal assistance,” the EPA statement read. “In the interim, we are available to provide technical support and information to Mississippi officials as they navigate their plan to address the immediate concerns at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant.”
Later Tuesday, the governor said FEMA has received the state’s declaration asking the federal government to declare the water shortage a federal emergency.
Water system issues go back decades, mayor says
The problem this week stems from one of two water treatment facilities in the city: the O.B. Curtis plant, which is run by the city of Jackson, according to the governor.
The main pumps at O.B. Curtis were severely damaged recently, and the facility began operating on smaller backup pumps about a month ago, around the time the latest boil water notice began in July, the governor said, without elaborating about the damage.
The governor said he was told Friday that “it was a near-certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something did not materially improve,” the governor said.
But Lumumba said during a Monday news conference that it was only a matter time before the water system failed because Jackson’s water system has been faced serious issues for years.
“I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ our system would fail, but a matter of ‘when’ our system would fail,” the mayor said, adding that the city has been “going at it alone for the better part of two years” when it comes to the water crisis.
In early 2020, the water system failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection. The agency wrote the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites, based on observations of the water’s turbidity, or cloudiness, as well as “disinfection treatment concerns, and/or the condition of the distribution system.”
In March 2020, the EPA issued an order requiring the city to develop a plan to replace and repair monitoring and treatment equipment, to “address dosing processes for disinfection and pH control” and to take more coliform bacteria samples, among other things.
The city also has endured weather-related shutdowns.
In February 2021, a winter storm shut down Jackson’s entire water system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without water for a month amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Residents have been under some sort of boil water notice or advisory several times since that storm, including the state-ordered notice posted in July.
“We were here two Februarys ago when we had system failures, and the world was watching us and the world is watching us again,” Lumumba said during Monday’s news conference.
The mayor also pointed to recent flooding from the Pearl River as an event that triggered the latest water pressure issues.
Because O.B. Curtis received additional water from the reservoir during the flooding from last week to this week, the facility had to change the way it treats the water, which has led to the reduction of water being put out into the system and reduced tank levels. This is affecting the water pressure at residents’ homes, he said.
“As one crisis may be diverted, another one rears its head,” Lumumba said Monday during a news conference after addressing the flooding in the city.
O.B. Curtis is meant to provide about 50 million gallons for the city daily. The other plant, which usually provides about 20 million gallons daily, has been approved to ramp up its output amid the shortage, authorities said.
In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi, mentioning Jackson without naming specific projects.
Lumumba declared a water system emergency Monday. The proclamation noted not only the flooding but also numerous previous “unsuccessful attempts to rectify water system issues.”
As for restoring water pressure and flow and performing emergency maintenance and repairs, the state would split the cost with the city, Reeves said Tuesday.
“We will cash flow the operation, and the city will be responsible for half the cost of the emergency improvements that we make,” the governor said in a statement released on Twitter.
At a Tuesday news conference at the plant, Reeves said he is “encouraged” and at the same time “discouraged” by some of the news coming out of the facility.
“We do have a plan in place to potentially bring in an additional rented pump that will allow us to put at least 4 million gallons of water additionally, hopefully, which will be installed by tomorrow morning. That is progress and will help,” he said.
Reeves added there is no time frame as of now for safe drinking water, but that over the next 24 to 36 hours residents will see significant truckloads of clean water start to be delivered to Jackson.
Over the next few days, more than 108 semi-trucks of water are coming into Jackson and seven mega distribution sites will have 36 truckloads of water a day for the public to be able to retrieve, according to Lt. Col. Stephen McCraney, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director.
Systemic issues also contributed to water crisis
Lumumba previously told CNN a lack of political will and years of neglect on a national level has prevented Jackson from getting the help it needs to fix its water and sewer crisis. Besides the infrastructure issues, the plant has also been faced with staffing issues, according to the mayor and governor.
“A far too small number of heroic frontline workers were trying their hardest to hold the system together, but that it was a near impossibility,” the governor said Monday.
Jackson’s ongoing water system problems already had some residents reporting low to no water pressure and raw sewage flowing in city streets and neighborhoods before this month.
Some on social media also pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of the city’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources, given that 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data, while the state’s legislature is majority White.
NAACP president Derrick Johnson called out the Mississippi governor on Twitter Tuesday.
”.@tatereeves, what are you waiting for!? We demand on behalf of the Jackson communities that you request federal aid from @FEMA and other agencies to ensure people have access to a basic human right: WATER,” Johnson’s tweet read. “Make the damn call. This is personal.”
Jackson has undergone drastic changes in the past half century. Its economic decline has occurred rapidly over the past two decades, fueled by population decline and demographic shifts.
The city’s population shrank from almost 200,000 in 1990 to about 160,000 in 2020. Its decline in population in these three decades was driven almost entirely by White flight. The city was 56% Black in 1990. By 2020, 82% of the city’s residents were Black.
CNN’s Amy Simonson, Amanda Musa, Ryan Young, Maria Cartaya, Sara Smart, Caroll Alvarado, Peter Nickeas, Melissa Alonso, Amanda Watts and Isabel Rosales contributed to this report.